A Therapist’s Guide to Coping When You Feel Completely Overwhelmed

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Experiencing the heaviness and stress that comes with feeling overwhelmed can be paralyzing, regardless of the cause. It's looking down at your to-do list and having absolutely no idea where to start. It's thinking of everything your partner, kids, and seemingly everyone else in your life needs you to do and worrying you're going to let them down. It's needing a break but feeling like you have so much on your plate that you can't take one.

Teletherapy company Talkspace defines "emotional overwhelm" as the feeling of being "completely submerged by your thoughts and emotions about all of life’s current problems, to the point where you lack efficacy and feel frozen or paralyzed." A frequent friend of anxiety, feeling overwhelmed is an emotion that is so big, it's hard to see your way out of it. That's where these tips from therapist and anxiety specialist Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT, come in. She shares advice on what to do when you're overwhelmed in a few common scenarios, along with some general insight on what you can do on a regular basis to nip that feeling in the bud the next time life throws a lot your way.

The 3 common causes of feeling overwhelmed—and how to deal with each

1. feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list

It's totally counterproductive, but somehow, the longer a to-do list gets, the harder it is to actually get started and tackle what's on it. When this happens to you, Rhodes-Levin suggests breaking it down into actionable steps, starting with what needs your attention first. Focus on completing the most critical task—having one thing crossed off on your list will feel empowering, she says, giving you the confidence to move on to something else. "I actually cross things off my to-do list in highlighter to highlight that I did it," Rhodes-Levin says.

If there's something on your to-do list that's going to require a lot of work (like a home improvement project or a big report for work), Rhodes-Levin says to break it down even further into micro tasks that are easier to tackle. "Instead of getting overwhelmed by the big picture, do it piece by piece," she says. It also gives you more to cross off, which, let's be real, is a major win.

2. feeling overwhelmed by finances

"A lot of people feel really stressed out because of money," Rhodes-Levin says. Regardless of what debts you owe, she says it's helpful to take a deep breath in those moments you're feeling super overwhelmed and focus on the ways you are taken care of. "For most people, even if they're worried about money, for that day, their basic needs are still being met," she says. Reminding yourself that you have a roof over your head, food to eat, and clothes to wear can help put situation into perspective, Rhodes-Levin says. "Most of the time, our mind goes straight to, 'I'm going to starve to death and be on the street.' Remind yourself that your basic needs are being met, you're doing what you can, and you'll be okay," she says. (And maybe add some mindful breathing into the mix to help clear your mind.)

Once your head is clear, then you can start to take action. Rhodes-Levin says a good first step is to take a hard look at your budget. Having a better understanding of your expenses, incomes, and debts can help you more easily assess what things can be cut from your budget (and what needs to be prioritized) so you can start feeling more financially free and less overwhelmed.

3. feeling overwhelmed by a particular relationship

Rhodes-Levin says that many people who come to her for guidance want so much to be a supportive partner (or daughter, friend, sister, and so forth) that, at times, the relationship can feel like too much to handle. "Often when we're getting overwhelmed in a relationship, it's because we're trying to make the other person feel okay," Rhodes-Levin says. "The thing is, you can't make someone else feel okay."

Rhodes-Levin says that she often sees clients who jump through hoops trying to please their partner, or to solve all their problems for them, but that just ends up burning out the client. "You just have to focus on being the best partner you can be by being present, but you have to let go of wanting to 'fix' another person," she says. Her tip on overcoming this urge: Focus inward on yourself instead. "What you can change is you," she explains. "Think about how you can adjust living with the person if he or she does not change. Can you have a relationship with them?"

Rhodes-Levin also encourages people who find themselves repeatedly drawn to people who need 'fixing' to explore why they may feel this way—ideally with a therapist. "What is that draws you to a person with issues? Can you work on [your own] issues that draws you to this type of person?" she says.

How to prevent feeling overwhelmed

Knowing what to do in the moment is important, but so is caring for yourself so that you don't reach the point of being overpowered by your emotions later. "I find that when people start feeling overwhelmed, it's because their self-care went out the window," Rhodes-Levin says. "Before you're ready to deal with anything else—whether it's your family, job, money, whatever it is—you have to take care of yourself first."

Self-care looks different for everyone (from meditation to a workout routine to therapeutic cooking), but Rhodes-Levin says that when you start making it a priority, it can change your whole perspective and make many of life's stressors easier to handle. She compares it to filling a car up with gas. "You don't wait until your car is completely out of gas to fill it up, so why should you do the same with yourself?" she says. "Check in with yourself, asking how much gas is in your tank. If you feel like it's less than half full, think about what you can do to fill yourself back up."

Rhodes-Levin also stresses the importance of asking for help—not just once in a while, but regularly. "We live in such an individualistic society that values independence, but humans are a tribal species; we're meant to work together," she says. Despite what many think, no one is supposed to do it all alone.

In short, knowing the source of your overwhelm—be it money, a damaging relationship, or work—can help you create a checklist for dealing with it accordingly. While you find your way, treat yourself with plenty of compassion. And don't be afraid to reach out to a friend who's invested in your happiness for a little support along the way.

This post was originally published on August 14, 2019; updated on March 20, 2020.

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